My reading has taken me back to the kingdom parables of Matthew 25. When I first came to serve First Christian Church in Las Vegas I was asked a number of times, “Have you been to Vegas before?” My answer was, “Yes, a couple of times.”
After a few weeks my answer was adjusted to, “No. I've been to the strip a couple of times; but this is my first time in Vegas.”
It’s true: aside from a few blocks either side of Las Vegas Blvd (“The Strip”) from about Washington to the north to around Russell to the south, Vegas is not a lot different from any metropolitan area of two million people.
I say, “…not a lot different…” The presence of the strip and its influence is never far from the surface. A few weeks ago I left the gym where I work out and drove to work down Charleston—a distance of about six miles, with eleven traffic lights. I counted 14 people working major intersections with cardboard signs that read, “Homeless”, “Hungry”, “Anything Helps,” etc. That was prior to 9:00 AM!
In the office I deal, directly or indirectly with a couple dozen requests for assistance every week—anywhere from the bus passes issued by the local rapid transit system to food to gasoline to help with rent, utilities, and even for eyeglasses. People wait in the parking lot and approach me as I walk to my car; they approach me at the gas pump as I fill my gas tank; they wait at the door of McDonald’s and roam the parking lot at Wal*Mart.
And if there’s an event at the church in which food is served, you can count on at least one scroungy, bearded person with a back pack to accept our hospitality (and we do always welcome them).
Can you spell “overkill?”
As a Christian I am only too aware that Jesus’ only direct judgments were related to the way we respond to the poor and to the most vulnerable of society—the “least of these” from Matthew 25.
In this environment there are two distinct threats to the integrity of ministry. The first is simply to become callous and cynical. A number of exposés in recent months have revealed that those who work the major intersections with cardboard signs count it a bad day if they don’t clear $400-$500 per day! Folks, I have the top academic degree in my profession and have over fifty years experience. I’m near the top of the pay scale in my profession, and I don’t make that much, even when you include (now that I’m retired) my pension and social security!
The people who come to our church for assistance quickly learn our system and “work the system”. “God’s Groceries” is our food bank that serves more than 450 families every month; but, we have to limit them to one bag of groceries per month. They obviously don’t miss many meals, because they’re back in line the next month.
There are “regulars” who learn my limits, and all of them soon come to understand that nobody related to our church will give cash under any circumstances. And almost all of them assume (and some do so with belligerence!) that I/we are obligated to give them what they want. Many will promise to “pay me back” on Friday; although, in over fifty years of ministry I’ve been “paid back” only once (by a trucker named "Z. T." for Zachary Taylor)!
So, it would be easy to be callous and cynical; indeed, I confess that I’m there! The grace is that (1) I know I’m cynical, (2) I recognize that I have neither the ability, the right nor the desire to judge whether the presented needs are valid and legitimate; so my policy is to help all who come to me—within the limits of my resources (although a significant number don't wan't to accept my limits.)
The second threat to ministry integrity is that we become “partners in crime” with those who have chosen this way of life, thereby diverting already limited resources away from those who are legitimately “the least of these.” My own policy is extremely vulnerable to this threat. The truth is that there is a population of professional panhandlers who have more income than I, and by my policy of helping everyone, I contribute to that injustice.
Another truth is that the real “least of these” includes children, the elderly and the ill who cannot—CANNOT—get a job and fend for themselves. Nor can they show up at on distribution day at God’s Groceries or stand on a street corner with a cardboard sign. Taking away food stamps and unemployment benefits may “motivate” a few able-bodied people to get jobs; but, “the least of these” is hurt worse by such oblivious and arrogant attempts to manipulate poverty.
Jesus told his disciples, “The poor will always be with you.” Was it because he knew there always will be those whose political and economic ideologies do not acknowledge the legitimacy of “the least of these?” Or, if they do acknowledge the legitimacy, they virtually never mention it in their ideological rhetoric.
A final truth is that our culture has created a growing population of hard-working, honest people who simply can’t make a living income in the present economy. At least a part of this problem is created when some corporations exploit cheap labor overseas. There simply are fewer and fewer jobs available for Americans who are among “the least of these”.
I wish I had a solution. I wish somebody had a solution. But I am left with a charity policy that at best is inadequate and probably is unjust. And every time I pass a person holding a cardboard sign I’m left with an empty, guilty recollection of the words from Matthew 25: “Inasmuch as ye did it not to the least of these, my brethren, ye did it not to me.”
Just a part of the daily grind of ministry. It keeps me humble, I hope. And on that downer, I begin Monday.
Together in the WalkPastor Jim